Step right up. This is the last seating for tonight's main event. How about an aisle spot, ma'am? No, that doesn't mean you can stretch your legs any better. I mean right in this aisle, squeezed between a 6-foot-8 basketball scout and the mother of the 6-foot-10, 230-pound center he's recruiting.
A little too cramped? OK, well the roomiest spots are over in the kennel, er, down by the floor, either cuddled up next to that howling Buena High Bulldog or sandwiched between those two screaming Cougars over on the Ventura High side.
Allergic to fur? Well, you're gonna have to sit on somebody's lap, ma'am. What did you expect showing up only a half-hour early for a Buena-Ventura basketball game? You new in town?
Say, which side would you rather sit on? No school affiliation? Great. You can root for Ventura, the home team. Go get cozy up there with Jayson Webb and David Lewis. They're two of the guys wildly swinging gold and black pompons. Yes, the ones with the painted faces. Too crazy? With all due respect, ma'am, you're not gonna find anyone here with all their marbles intact.
Go ahead, try the other side, things are just as rambunctious. See the guy babbling about his Bulldog hair--that's what he calls the black and blue pompon stuffed under his hat--that's Frank Davis, Buena's director of spirit. Now he might bark, but he'd never bite. Well, there was that time Frank nipped a Ventura booster in his spirit section, but he swears it was an accident.
You say you want to sit somewhere quiet? Goodness gracious lady, didn't anybody tell you? This is Buena-Ventura, the rowdiest high school rivalry around. If it's quiet you want, go to the Ventura library. There sure as heck won't be any high school kids cluttering up the place tonight.
It is 15 minutes before the varsity basketball teams from Buena and Ventura high schools are scheduled to meet for first place in the Channel League and--perhaps even more important--bragging rights to the city of Ventura for three weeks.
The site is Ventura College, chosen because its seating capacity of 3,000 is roughly twice that of either school's gym. Perhaps they should have rented the Forum.
There hasn't been a seat open inside since halftime of the junior varsity game and there are still dozens of fans lined up outside waiting to buy tickets, not to mention the people scouring the college lots and not-so-nearby residential streets for a place to park.
"What the hell is going on here tonight?" growls a middle-aged man clutching a briefcase, striding hurriedly through a maze of parked cars. "Basketball game," he is told.
"Who's playing? The Lakers and the Celtics?" he asks in a miffed tone. "Nope, Buena and Ventura," he is told. His pout turns to a smile. "Really?" he says. "I went to Ventura. I should have known. You know, I'm already late. If I was smart, I'd skip class and go to the game."
Or at least mark Feb. 10 on the calendar. That's the date of the next Buena-Ventura game, the third and final meeting in the regular season. Same time, same place.
Ventura won the first meeting in the final of the Ventura Kiwanis tournament. The Cougars, in fact, are 15-0 coming into the game. Buena is 12-2--its only losses to Ventura and Mater Dei.
Inside the gym it doesn't take long to decipher which side is which. There are those dressed in the gold and black of Ventura on one side and those adorned in powder blue and black--the Buena colors--on the other.
The crowd is about half students, once junior high and grade-school classmates, now entrenched on opposite sides of a rivalry which, for a couple of hours anyway, splits a city.
"We all used to be friends in junior high," Davis, a senior, says between bellowing Bulldog cheers. "Then you go to different high schools and now everybody is showing their loyalty to their school. We're all striving to be better than the other guy and we all think our school is better."
Tracy Powell, captain of the Buena cheerleaders, is as fired up to compete as any of the basketball players.
"This is the one game where everybody really gets involved," she says. "The competition to outyell--it's really intense. It's more interschool competition than just basketball. It's more like an excuse for us to get together and yell."
And sometimes cause a little trouble.
Watch Jennifer Goodge, captain of the Ventura cheerleaders, squirm when asked about pranks the schools take turns pulling on each other. "It's clean," she insists. "Things like toilet papering and putting a stuffed Bulldog on a noose."
Asked if Ventura had in any way so defaced Buena's campus during the week of the game, songleader Jessica Hirsch answers, "No. Not this week."
Almost as evasive is Davis' answer to a similar question: "Have we ever attacked their school? Uh, not on the record."
You get the idea. This is "Almost Anything Goes," take two. But it's strictly rated G. Oh, there have been a few scuffles over the years, but not nearly the number of ugly confrontations inspired by some other rivalries-gone-awry.
"What's so special is that it's so intense, it's so noisy, then afterwards everyone comes down on the floor and shakes hands. They're friends," says Dave Myers, an assistant principal at Ventura.
Myers, who is wearing a black tie painted with "Go Cougars 1" in gold lettering, previously worked at Chaffey High in Ontario. "I've seen intense rivalries where the people really hated each other," he says. Here you're concerned about the number of people, but not that there's going to be a gigantic fight.
Caught in the middle of the excitement are the coaches, Glen Hannah of Buena and Chris Taylor of Ventura. They are the ones with the unenviable responsibility of trying to run an orderly exhibition of basketball amid this carnival-like atmosphere.
Taylor, who is in his third year, approaches the Buena game differently than the rest. There is no talk about matchups or tendencies. No pep speech. If a player isn't ready against Buena, he figures, what's the use?
He is rarely disappointed. "You can see the difference in warmups," he says. "They get up four to six inches higher when they jump."
Hannah and Taylor are uniquely qualified to handle the situation, however, because they have been involved in the rivalry as players. Interestingly, Hannah played at Ventura and Taylor at Buena. During the 1967-68 season, Hannah says, they even guarded each other.
"It's emotional," Taylor says of facing his alma mater. "I still feel that link to Buena. Those cheers you've said over and over are in the back of your mind. You hear them again and you have to say, 'Wait a minute, I'm a Cougar now.' "
The game begins and it quickly becomes apparent that Buena is armed and ready--in more ways than one.
Mike Sandoval scores on a drive through the key, giving the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead and inciting Buena fans to litter the court with rolls of white toilet paper.
Reaction from the Ventura side: cat-calls (Cougar calls?), signals of 'T' for a technical foul, and a chant "We've got class! We've got class!"
By the end of the first quarter, Ventura also has the lead, 23-12, and a sea of gold and black is exploding with every basket.
Actually, there is little clapping. Fans from both sides seem less intent on cheering for their team than they are on letting out blood-curdling screams while contorting their faces and jabbing their fingers in the direction of the stands across the way.
Yo, take that and stuff it in your baby-blue bazookas!
On the Buena side, only half of the crowd that stood to cheer at the start of the game is rooting hard now. There are long faces. But they quickly brighten when the Bulldogs come storming back on the three-point shooting of guards Sandoval and Jeff Oliver.
Ventura leads at the half, 42-37, and Cougar fans are confident the score will get no closer.
"They will not come back in the second half and win," says Lewis, who describes the rivalry as "the ultimate spirit fair."
And what happens if Ventura does win? "Then they admit that we have the better school and they wished they went there," Webb says.
The second half begins and Buena picks up where it left off. By the end of the third period the Bulldogs lead, 64-57, and its once-shrinking student support section spans almost the length of the court.
Buena's lead balloons to 15 midway through the fourth period and reality begins to set in the stands on the opposite end of the floor. Ventura has fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, from first place in the Channel League and from first place in the city all in one night.
With less than a minute left, the lead is 12. "15 and 1, 15 and 1" the Buena crowd roars, reminding the good folks across the way that their record will soon be blemished.
Finally, Bulldog fans simply can't restrain their joy. When the ball flies out of bounds with one second left on the clock, Buena fans let fly more toilet paper.
Players and fans start to spill out on the court, but coaches and officials push them back. The game is technically not over. But officially the celebration has begun. Buena, a 94-80 winner, is the city's top 'Dog. For now.
A few minutes later, Lewis, his black and gold face streaked with sweat, admits as much.
"I made a mistake," he says. "I guess a rivalry changes everything."